Responding to reports Thursday of a decades-old incident, Texas Gov. George W. Bush acknowledged being arrested and pleading guilty to drunken driving.
The GOP presidential nominee confirmed the episode, which took place in Maine over the 1976 Labor Day weekend, after details were broadcast by Maine television stations. Several years ago, Bush was asked directly whether he had ever been arrested for drunken driving, and he refused to say.
“I’ve oftentimes said that, years ago, I made some mistakes,” Bush stated Thursday night at a hastily arranged news conference after a campaign rally at the Wisconsin state fairgrounds. “I occasionally drank too much, and I did on that night. I regret that it happened.”
Bush repeatedly questioned the timing of the Maine news reports. “I think that’s an interesting question,” he told reporters. “Why now? . . . I’ve got my suspicions.”
The news director for one of the Maine stations that carried the story said a reporter dug up the information from court records after receiving a tip.
Bush was pulled over by police for driving too slowly near his family’s summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine. He paid a $150 fine and had his driving privileges briefly revoked in the state of Maine. His driver’s license in Texas, where Bush lived at the time, was not revoked or suspended.
Embarrassing as it may be, it was unclear what, if any, effect the episode will have on the presidential race, which remains neck and neck just five days before the election.
“It’s a long time ago,” said Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist. “He has admitted he made mistakes in his past, and this incident was certainly well inside the period of time when he acknowledged alcohol was interfering with his life, to use his words. He was 30, and he’s a hell of a lot older now.”
In an oft-told story, the 54-year-old governor has recounted how he quit drinking the day after his 40th birthday.
“Alcohol was beginning to compete for my affections, compete for my affections for my wife and my family,” Bush said in a September appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s television talk show. “It was starting to crowd out my energy, and I just had to quit.”
Still, the revelation Thursday proved an unwanted distraction, throwing the Bush campaign on the defensive over the candidate’s admittedly boisterous past and forcing his campaign to temporarily lay aside its attacks on Gore.
Before Bush spoke, communications director Karen Hughes addressed the matter standing on the tarmac of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Speaking to about 100 reporters, she offered the following account:
She said Bush had several beers on Sept. 4, 1976, when he was stopped by police in Kennebunkport. Three people were in the car with Bush: Bush’s sister, Dorothy; Australian tennis player John Newcombe; and Newcombe’s wife.
Hughes said Bush pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of driving while under the influence of alcohol, paid the fine. His license was suspended in Maine for “a period of time.”
In an interview with Associated Press, the arresting officer, Calvin Bridges, recalled driving home from work after midnight and spotting a car slipping briefly onto the shoulder before getting back on the road.
Bush failed a road sobriety test and a second test at the police station, registering a 0.10% blood-alcohol level--the legal threshold at the time, Bridges said.
Asked about Bush’s demeanor, the retired officer said: “The man was, and I say this without being facetious, a picture of integrity. He gave no resistance. He was very cooperative.”
Bridges said Bush spent about 90 minutes in custody.
The governor failed to mention the incident on at least one occasion when he was asked about drunken driving.
In 1996, during his first term as governor, Bush was removed from a list of potential jurors in a drunken driving case. Before Bush or any other prospective jurors were called into the courtroom, the defense attorney requested that Bush be struck from the panel because of the governor’s ability to grant pardons to those convicted of crimes.
According to the Houston Chronicle, Bush was asked outside the courtroom if he had ever been arrested for driving while intoxicated.
“I do not have a perfect record as a youth,” Bush told reporters. Pressed for more detail, he said, “When I was young, I did a lot of foolish things. But I will tell you this, I urge people not to drink and drive. It’s an important message for all people to hear. I don’t drink, and I hope others don’t drink and drive as well.”
As the story of Bush’s 1976 arrest was being broadcast, Bush’s wife, Laura, called their twin daughters, both freshmen in college, to discuss the episode.
“This was an incident that even the daughters did not know about,” said Hughes, who appeared shaken as she stood at the foot of Bush’s campaign plane before flying to Milwaukee.
Hughes said Bush’s only other brush with police was an arrest for a fraternity prank in which Bush and some of his friends took a Christmas wreath from a hotel, an incident that has been previously reported.
A spokesman for Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee, categorically denied any connection between the campaign and the revelations that surfaced Thursday.
“This is not something the Gore campaign would be involved with in any way, shape or form,” Gore press secretary Chris Lehane said.
Beyond that, Lehane said, “we just don’t think it’s appropriate for us to be commenting.”
Times staff writers Edwin Chen and James Gerstenzang and researcher Massie Ritsch contributed to this story.